High blood pressure increases our chances of having a heart attack or a stroke. Of course, this does not mean that we necessarily will have them.
At this time, there are more than 50 million Americans with elevated blood pressure and after age sixty, one out of every two people has high blood pressure. Many of us do not even know that our blood pressure is elevated because, usually, it does not cause any symptoms, particularly in its early stages.
If we already know that we have high blood pressure, there are several ways to control it and reduce the chances of complications. Heart attacks and stroke in the U.S. have decreased substantially—up to 50 percent since the 1980s—mainly because of better diagnoses, more effective medications, and simple measures such as increasing physical activity and losing weight.
Treatments for high blood pressure that include increased physical activity must be tailored to its severity. If the upper value, or systolic, is above 180 or the lower value, or diastolic, is about 110, the initial treatment includes medications such as diuretics and later, maybe “beta blockers.” When the blood pressure is under control and its values return to normal, increasing our physical activity will further improve our chances of better health.
Naturally, we should consult our family doctor for proper treatments and guidance regarding exercise as part of them. If our blood pressure is found to be elevated, chances are that it is borderline or only mildly increased and exercise could safely be added to our treatments, provided we do not have other health problems.
Unfortunately, overweight and obesity have reached epidemic status in the U.S.; if we are overweight, losing the extra pounds must be the first step to bring our blood pressure down and, of course, improve our health. Much has been said and written about losing weight and diets, but the reality is that we do lose weight by decreasing our intake of high sugar and fat and by moving around more. It is in essence a learning process—the more we learn about what we eat daily, the better our choices will be. Reducing our salt intake will also benefit our blood pressure.
Consistent exercise—even walking two or three times a week for about one month—decreases both the systolic and diastolic values by about eight to ten points. For many of us, ten points would not be much, but it is an excellent start. Increased physical activity will improve not only our blood pressure, but also reduce our stress, blood sugar, and also cholesterol—provided we make some sensible changes in our diet.
If we have a family history of high blood pressure, exercise will also be of benefit by delaying—or even preventing—its appearance and complications.
When we hear about exercising and working out, many of us may believe that it could be complicated and expensive, that we should buy special clothes and shoes, sign up with a gym, drive to and from it, set aside a good amount of time for it, etc., but it does not have to be so! We do not have to radically change our lives in order to improve our health. A daily walk, using stairs more often (either at work or at the office), doing more work around the house, and doing light aerobics will all help to burn calories and improve our sense of well-being and health.
Just by increasing our physical activity for only twenty or thirty minutes every day, we will notice a marked difference in a few weeks, and it does not have to be exhausting to be effective ... but it should moderately increase our heart rate and breathing.
Injuries may happen when we start exercising, but they could be avoided by properly warming up, starting slowly, and not trying to overdo it and speed up things while trying to see good results right away. Good planning is essential—if we do it carefully, we will be amazed at how easy and effective it is.
Exercise should not be another chore to be added to our busy schedule; it should be planned in a way that we would look forward to by making it interesting and enjoyable. We should avoid routines by exercising at different times of the day, by varying activities every day, alternating walking with aerobics, swimming, etc. Planning and consistency are paramount because the beneficial effects of exercise will disappear once we discontinue it.
More intense activities such as jogging, weight lifting, etc., must not be undertaken unless recommended by our family physicians.
By Matthew L. Harrington, MD